Essay Evaluation

In evaluating your work, I try to use realistic criteria reflecting the forms of prose that academic readers expect.  As you’ve learned from Harris, academic writing is largely distinguished from other kinds of writing (fiction, journalism, polemic, etc.) by the way it visibly and self-consciously engages its sources. Therefore, I evaluate your research essay chiefly in terms of the relationships they establish with their sources. This means acknowledging and responding to what others have written (in secondary sources) in order to develop insight or generate new knowledge about phenomena (represented in primary sources).

poor (D/F): insufficiently engages its sources

It will be characterized by more than one of the following:  insubstantial treatment of evidence, unsubstantiated or absent claims, unfairly dismissive or uncritical analytical voice, serious logical gaps or highly questionable reasoning, non-viable agenda, excessive number of syntax and/or proofing errors.  Its ethos is, on the whole, untrustworthy.  A “D” essay may hold some small saving grace, some brief moment of insight or acuity that will rescue it from the abyss.

basic (C): remains bound by the limitations of its sources

It restates aspects of its sources with basic accuracy and usually with fairness.  But it may provide a relatively uncritical or potentially unfair reading of the sources by taking them at face value or dismissing them out of hand.  It may have a central agenda or central claims, but it may not make clear how its claims are contestable, specific, or substantive.  Therefore, its claims may resemble fact-statements or broad truisms rather than arguments. Its analytical voice may be difficult to distinguish from its sources.  It may provide an insubstantial reading of sources, not dealing with them in sufficient specific detail.  It may contain questionable reasoning or leave too many logical gaps, especially between evidence and claims.  Its grasp on syntax conventions and style may appear weak in specific areas, obscuring meaning or implying carelessness, and therefore contributing to a somewhat untrustworthy ethos.h

good (B): exploits the limitations of its sources

It begins to establish an independent academic voice by juxtaposing sources—comparing, contrasting, showing contradictions or complications.  It lays out an agenda–claims or problems or questions that give shape to the treatment of sources.  It follows an organizational logic that is mapped out early on and/or that is made clear by rhetorical cues as the essay moves forward.  It acknowledges and responds to other arguments or points of view in secondary sources.  It examines evidence, including contradictory evidence, in ample and well-selected detail.  It treats the sources fairly but critically, identifying their limitations but also exploiting them for what they offer individually or, better yet, in dialogue with each other.  It acknowledges and works to respond to potential reader objections (counter-claims, -evidence, -reasoning).  Its agenda may be unclear or overly broad; or it may have a clear agenda that is hampered somewhat by discrete weaknesses in evidence, reasoning, use of  scholarship, or syntax. But its generally knowledgeable use of syntax and style helps establish a trustworthy ethos.

excellent (A): escapes the limitations of its sources

It compels the reader forward, through and beyond the primary and secondary sources in pursuit of a specific independent agenda or project:  a major problem, a set of questions (not merely rhetorical questions or factual questions), or a provisional claim or set of claims that clearly matter to the writer.  It makes clear the importance and implications of that agenda.  It treats the sources fairly but critically, and always with plain purpose.  It acknowledges and makes use of other scholars’ work in ways that set it apart (it does not simply fall into old debates).  Sound reasoning explicitly connects its claims, evidence, and use of other scholars’ work.  It lays bare its underlying assumptions as need be.  It effectively anticipates and accommodates potential objections (counter-claims, counter-evidence, counter-reasoning) by way of concession, rebuttal, and reconsideration, and by placing qualifications and limitations on its own claims.  Its self-conscious and perhaps creative use of syntax and style conventions help establish a trustworthy and uniquely engaging ethos.  It does all this in addition to and by improving upon the qualities of good (B) work.


The descriptive criteria above determine the bulk of the essay grade.  Plus (+) or minus (-) may be added to indicate particular strengths or weaknesses within that grade range.  These grades are then assigned the standard numerical equivalent on the 4.0-point grade scale in order to average it with other grades:  A+ = 4.3, A = 4.0, A- = 3.7, B+ = 3.3, 3.0 = B, B- = 2.7, C+ = 2.3, C = 2.0, C- = 1.7, D+ = 1.3, D = 1.0, D- = 0.7, F = 0.0.